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BookREVIEW: The Social Neuroscience of Education

Social neuroscience image

Louis Cozolino
New York:W.W. Norton, 2013
Hardcover, pp404
Reviewer Christiane Sanderson

As a lecturer in psychology and counselling for 25 years I was curious to see how Cozolino would apply his insights from neuroscience to education. Following on from his excellent books The Neuroscience of Human Relationships (2006) and The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy (2010) he turns his attention to how attachment and social relationships form the foundation of how we learn across the lifespan, from preschool to university and adult education. In emphasising the social relationship between teacher and student, Cozolino suggests that the teacher is like a sculptor who sculpts the brains of the future generation. He argues that in order to radically change our approach to education we need to place healthy attachment at the centre of learning and that attachment security and attunement are the best ways to develop the necessary self esteem, emotional regulation and motivation required to learn. In the presence of such safety and security, much like the holding environment in therapy, learners become receptive, allowing the social brain to take in new experiences and learn from them. In this meaning, relevance and change are generated.

Cozolino proposes that classrooms need to mirror and create the same conditions in which the social brain evolved, and in which secure attachment and a sense of belongingness is emphasised. To facilitate healthy psychological and cognitive development, we need to build what he calls ‘tribal classrooms’ which provide a supportive environment, positive relationships and emotional engagement to stimulate curiosity, wisdom and compassion. As evidence, Cozolino looks at factors such as impaired attachment relationships, classroom stress, bullying and detachment which can inhibit learning and turn the brain ‘off’, and which factors optimise learning. He demonstrates that emotional attunement, creative play, story telling and developing a sense of community and belonging are critical in stimulating neural mechanisms of both reward and learning and turning brains ‘on’. It is only the tribal classroom in which learners feel connected, securely attached and motivated so that they can fully engage with the world and be open to learning.

The book is full of insights and practical applications to enhance teaching practice with lots of examples of how teachers can feel empowered in their practice and witness students’ delight and success in learning. It is interwoven with numerous philosophical quotes, all of which inspire wisdom and compassion and remind us how important the role of teaching can be in developing the minds of future generations.

Cozolino is also mindful of how important it is for teachers to understand their own brains and ensure their own well being in order to create the optimal conditions to inspire students to learn. To facilitate this Cozolino emphasises the importance of teacher self-care and engaging in play and creativity both inside and outside the classroom to avoid burnout. This is particularly gratifying given the often competing demands made in today’s classrooms and lecture theatres. As he aptly states ‘When a teacher begins to think of his or her classroom as an assembly line, it’s time to make chicken nuggets’. This is an excellent book and should be read by all those who wish to teach and inspire future generations rather than make chicken nuggets.

Christiane Sanderson BSc, MSc is a lecturer in Psychology and Counselling at Roehampton University and author of a number of books on child sexual abuse, domestic abuse and interpersonal trauma.